NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Say this for Chris Serino: he’s got guts.
Trailing 3-1 to No. 3 Maine with 3:41 remaining, the Merrimack head coach pulled replacement goaltender Jim Healey coming out of a timeout to give his struggling offense a man advantage as the Warriors and Black Bears skated 4-on-4.
Even after the clubs were back to full strength, Healey remained on the bench, in essence putting Merrimack on the power play — its one true strength — for nearly four minutes.
The message was clear: Serino is willing to do whatever it takes for his team to snap out of what’s turned into a prolonged slump.
“What’s the difference if we lose 3-1 or 4-1?” he reasoned.
Over on the visiting bench, Maine head coach Tim Whitehead could appreciate the gamble.
“That’s what I would have done in that situation,” said Whitehead, whose powerful 11-2-1 (6-2-1 league) squad is now alone in second place in Hockey East. “I thought it was a great move.”
Though Serino’s calculated risk didn’t pay off in the 500th hockey game played inside the Volpe Center, it seemed to do wonders for the psyche of the Warriors — losers for the eighth time in 12 games — providing them with a much-needed boost entering Saturday night’s rematch at Lawler Arena.
“You could really see the sense of confidence in the locker room after the game,” said defenseman Bryan Schmidt. “Maine’s No. 3 in the country and we know we can play with the best in the country. It’s just a matter of how hard we’re willing to work.
“We know Maine’s a hard-working team and we’ve got to work harder than they do. Tomorrow’s going to be a big battle.”
If not for the final 44.1 seconds of the first period, Merrimack just might have had a chance at the upset following what was shaping up to be a solid opening 20 minutes.
Black Bears captain Todd Jackson scored his team-high ninth goal 9:03 into the game with an outstanding short-side backhander over the shoulder of stunned Warriors starting goalie Casey Guenther (13 saves), having beaten Merrimack defenseman Peter Hams to the post with a power rush up the left wing.
As he did most of the night, Maine goalie Jimmy Howard (28 saves) foiled a spirited 13-shot Merrimack attack with some point-blank stops. As a result, it looked as though the Warriors would enter the first intermission just down a goal, but the relentless Black Bears had other plans.
With less than a minute remaining, an outstanding backchecking effort at center ice from freshman Luciano Aquino — younger brother of former Merrimack star Anthony — allowed Maine defenseman Troy Barnes to start a 3-on-1 rush on Guenther. Senior Colin Shields finished it off with a one-timer from 30 feet out of a Michel Leveille feed that zipped by Guenther high to the glove side at 19:15.
Just 34 seconds later, sloppy play along the defensive boards — something that has plagued Merrimack all season — led to Maine junior John Ronan picking the puck off Warriors defenseman Eric Pedersen’s stick behind the home net to set up sophomore Jon Jankus for a shot that trickled between Guenther’s pads with just 10.5 seconds showing on the clock.
“We just had a meltdown in the last minute of the first period,” Serino said. “We had a couple of turnovers and they capitalized. But they weren’t very good goals.”
Whitehead viewed the 35-second spurt a little differently.
“Those were timely goals that were pretty deflating,” he said. “I thought the Zamboni came out at the right time to let them go in and regroup. Then they came out and were able to have a real good second period. But from our vantage point, those were two huge goals.”
Healey replaced Guenther to start the second period, turning aside all 19 shots he faced in 40 minutes of play. Serino says he “would have to sleep” on which netminder to start Saturday.
“Those goals weren’t necessarily Casey’s fault,” he said. “We made some stupid turnovers because we got lazy. And the guys came out with a little something to prove in the last two periods because they know they let him down.”
After a scoreless second, Warriors senior Tim Reidy scored 1:14 into the third period, outskating Maine defenseman Prestin Ryan a chip-out off the right boards before roofing a wrist shot over Howard’s glove.
Entering the game with the eighth-ranked power play (18 for 82) in the nation, the Warriors went 0 for 5 with the man advantage, generating just six of their 29 shots during those chances.
“We knew that was going to be a huge part of the game, our ability to shut them down on the power play,” Whitehead said. “We knew that would be a momentum swinger for us, and we managed to kill off all those power plays.”